Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Get up and open the door

Sister Sarah Hennessey is a spiritual advisor for her local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s National Council of the United States and serves as an emergency contact for those who find themselves in urgent need.

The call came on a Sunday evening. A woman was at our grocery story and had no place to stay tonight. Could I go and meet her and see if I could help? I paused just a second and then burst out, “I’m already in my pajamas!” Never mind that it was only 5:30 p.m. She was hungry and homeless and I found it just a bit inconvenient!

From this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 11:5-8:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,’
and he says in reply from within,
‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed.
I cannot get up to give you anything.’
I tell you,
if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.—

What if I’m the lazy one who won’t get out of bed? I’ve always thought that in this story was God and I was the hungry one knocking on the door at midnight. But in my life it doesn’t always work that way. Another call came. “I was in the hospital and I’m not working and I don’t have food for my kids.” This time it’s Friday night and I’m already in my chair so I ask, “Do you have enough food for tonight?” She said honestly and forthrightly, “I have eggs and potatoes but no milk or yogurt for my toddler.” After talking it through we decide I could visit another day. But her words haunt me. Facing an empty cupboard and hungry children and then choosing between potatoes and yogurt is just the reality for so many of our working poor.

Yes: I cannot fix every problem or be available every moment of the day. Dealing with people in crisis means sharing the load and keeping some personal boundaries. Sometimes though, when God knocks on my door I don’t get out of bed. “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.”

God doesn’t just ask for my time and availability. God knocks on the threshold of my heart inviting me to risk it all and follow him completely. So I’m a Catholic sister, right? Given my life to God? Check. Whoa Nelly! Not so fast! The invitation is persistent. I still hold back from God. I’m small and selfish and want to watch just one more TV show. Conversion is this path we walk. And God wants my real and broken heart, my passion, my life, my future.

My FSPA community gathered this summer around the theme, “Risk Boldly the Future.” At first I didn’t like that theme. I thought the future is my life we are talking about and I’m not so sure I want to risk my whole life! Part of me wants to cling to security and that always means keeping our wild and surprising God out of our plans.

FSPA General Assembly Harvest

Now, I know Risking Boldly is a dance. Knock. Knock. We open the door. I’m not alone but we are here on this edge following Christ full force. Being a Christian and living religious life in particular has never been about protecting security. If that’s what I’m looking for I’m in the wrong place. Jesus took it to the cross. He had nowhere to rest his head. With every Sabbath-breaking, purity law, confounding step he took, Jesus risked and redefined security in service, sacrifice and friendship.

And we are called to do the same. At our community gathering and at the National Giving Voice Gathering of Catholic Sisters Under 50 we did an activity called Open Space Technology. While we sat in silence we were invited to walk to the microphone, state a topic that we wanted to make happen and in what corner of the building we would meet. I held my breath. I thought it wouldn’t work. Then a voice broke the silence and boldness happened. “Let’s eradicate modern slavery.” “I want to start a YouTube channel of young nuns.” “We can make a dent in homelessness in our home town.” “We are a global church.” “How does that shape formation?” Risky movements came forward that I want to commit to with my whole heart. And now there are a plethora of small groups fleshing out those ideas and seeing where they lead. Hey God, the door is open, we are here!

So here I am—between security and risk, inconvenience and Gospel living. I’m noticing my resistances and I’m stepping forward into the unknown as a Christian with friends and bold action and following our Jesus to the cross. Like the friend knocking on the door at midnight, God is persistent. Over and over again I get to choose to get out of bed and open the door.